Wonderbook Interview with Jeffrey Ford

Jeffrey Ford is an American writer whose fiction combines elements of traditional fantasy or magic realism with surrealism and horror. As a student at Binghamton University, he studied with the novelist John Gardner. His work has been nominated for and received many awards, including the World Fantasy Award, the International Horror Guild Award, the Edgar Allen Poe Award, the Hugo and the Nebula Award.

You tend to think of yourself as a very organic and instinctual writer. But there must be some things about a story or novel you map out ahead of time. What are they?

Yes, more so with novels and especially the historical novels I’ve written. Those had a lot of research – not that it wasn’t fun. I’m more instinctual when it comes to following the characters, not “directing” them, in order to discover the story, but in a novel where the verisimilitude of the setting is important to creating a convincing world for the reader to step into, the historical research is important. Some of that takes place before hand, but a lot takes place during the writing of the book because the character might decide that she’d like to stop for a cup of coffee while on the street of 19th century New York City. Then you’ve got to check out where might she do that? You go to a reference work like the facsimile edition of Moses King’s 1894 New York Almanac and discover that coffee was sold from kiosks on the street corners in many different locations all over the city at the time. King also gives the price of a cup. You just get that worked out, then you notice your character has decided she must visit her artist friend in Gramercy Park. She knows all about Gramercy Park and you don’t, but it’s your responsibility to serve the story, and so you must look it up and find out the park of Gramercy Park could only be gotten into by residents who upon purchase of a place on the park are bestowed a golden key that grants access and that Gramercy was one of the first places in the city to have electric lights.

What do you need in your head or scribbled on paper to start and finish a rough draft? (this may be the same question from your point of view)

I’m not an inveterate note taker or scribble maker. Even with a lot of the historical research, once I find it, I just keep it in my head. I really need nothing by way of notes or scribbling to start a book or finish one. I feel like too much scribbling outside of writing the thing commits ideas to paper and creates a reliance on the paper. In carrying everything around in my head, I always have it to work on, and I do – while driving, shopping for groceries, sitting in the dentist’s office. It all mixes together nicely up there and continues working on the story even while I’m sleeping. Other people like to make voluminous notes and so forth in vellum notebooks with special pens. It’s not my thing, but if it works for them that’s what counts. I sometimes like to draw pictures of the story. I did more of this when I was younger, but I’m thinking of trying it out again. Besides being a good help sometimes, it was fun.

What, to you, is important to convey through characterization and what isn’t?

I think of it the other way around – I don’t convey things through the characters; they convey things through me. I’m merely a conduit, but they’re in charge. Everything comes from the characters. That’s not to say that everything is always revealed. Sometimes it’s implicit, sometimes you’ll never know.

Do you write a scene and perfect it or write a full rough draft and go back, or some combination of the two?

I’ll write a scene one day and then the next, before continuing on, I’ll revise the scene from the day before, which will get me back into the world of the story. I’ll keep doing that for a long while, starting at the beginning and then reading forward, making small changes or big ones as I go and then launch into the void at the end of what I have written. With a longer work, I’ll do this ’til it becomes too time consuming to read every day from the beginning, then I’ll pick another point further in to begin my rereading. The manuscript gets many adjustments this way as you go along. At the end, I then revise the entire manuscript many times.

What does revision usually consist of for you, and typically how many drafts do you need before you feel you’re finished?

I don’t think in terms of drafts. I have more the sense of being like a sculptor, working on a block of stone and revealing more and more of what already exists within the stone. I have always had the feeling that the stories already exist, as if in some alternate universe, and the act of writing is an act of discovering them. Terms like “drafts” seem to denote to me some mechanical process, a kind of bricklaying. For me, it’s all one thing, the writing and revising.

How do you know where to end a story?

Good endings are tough in that they’re intuitive. After writing the whole story, though, when you come to the ending – if you don’t feel it, something’s obviously gone wrong in the writing. Forcing an ending is bad business. You gotta go back and take a look. The characters have done their best to show you the story they had to tell, but if the ending doesn’t work, the fault is yours. No doubt you tried to take over somewhere in the story or your craft was not up to describing what the characters wanted you to see; therefore, you missed it entirely.

What does an ending have to give the reader, and what can it hold back without the reader feeling cheated?

An ending has the same power over the story that a photographer’s technique of cropping has over the power of a photograph. Sudden breaks, like in certain Japanese novels, give one effect, beautifully designed crescendos give another, and then there is always the death of the protagonist, which offers yet another type of ending. But a good story is an organic thing and must run its course naturally. Each story has only one perfect idiosyncratic ending, depending on how it’s told. What it gives to the reader is a satisfactory point of departure from the world of the story.  When I say satisfactory, I don’t mean the reader will always be closing the book with a feeling of satisfaction.

Are you fairly economical, with regards to short stories, or is there a lot of stuff in the rough draft that never makes it to the final draft?

It’s hard for me to tell how much I add and cut from a story as I work in a kind of daze, deep in the story, my imagination completely involved with it. I know I’m cutting and adding stuff all the time as I go through, trying to reveal the characters’ story, but I’m rarely conscious of how much. I do know some stories have a lot more cutting and adding than in others.

How many stories that you start do you finish? (And is it different now than when you started out?)

I probably finish about half the stories I start, but the ones I haven’t finished, I always intend to go back and finish them. They’re not rejects, they’re just waiting for the moment when the path of the story reveals itself to me and I can follow it again. Many of the stories sit for years before I’ll pick them up and find my way in them and finish them. Never throw anything away. This is about the same as when I started – the same number. The only thing I’ve gotten better at is being able to discern when the story is authentic, coming from the character, and when it is really me setting up some straw man without a story to reveal. Better at it but nowhere near infallible.

If you had a chance to go back and save yourself some time when you were just starting out, what would you tell yourself, with regard to writing and revision?

1. See the character. Follow the character. The character will take you to the story. Depending upon how adept you are in your craft, your ability to precisely record what the character does and does next, will determine how successful the story is.

2. Revision is the key.